Your Prayers Won’t Get Off the Ground
1-3 “Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
face my family Jacob with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’
3-5″Well, here’s why:
“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
a fast day that I, God, would like?
6-9″This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[e] and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Cleanses & fasts are huge right now in the dietary world. There’s that crazy lemonade fast with the maple syrup & cayenne pepper. There’s the cabbage soup diet, juice fasts, Isagenix cleanses, and all kinds of things out there to make you healthy & thin. However fasting in scripture is more often a spiritual practice that is intended to align our minds and hearts with God’s intentions for our communities.
While there is a lot said in the Bible regarding fasting, there’s not a lot of popular discussion of or writing about it. In fact, between 1851 & 1954 there was not a single book published on the subject. Mentions, sure, but no whole books. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, during the Middle Ages, fasting was practiced to an extreme, with the most rigorous regulations and extreme self-flagellation. That type of extreme fasting is devoid of true spiritual power which is replaced by the false sense of security given by strict legalism. Second, we are told in our culture that if we don’t satisfy every appetite we might starve, do without or, worse, be UNCOOL.
There is a difference between fasting and hunger striking, which is intended to draw attention to a cause or gain political power. In the bible, fasting focuses on spiritual purposes, which will be our discussion today. Most biblical fasting pertains to abstaining from food. There are 3 types of fasts in the Bible: 1) the normal fast; 2) the partial fast; 3) the absolute fast. The normal fast is abstaining from food, but not water. The partial fast is a restricted diet, but consists of some food and water. The absolute fast means abstaining from both food and water. Most of the time in scripture, fasts are a personal observance but there are occasions for corporate, community fasts as well.
The Isaiah passage is accusing Israel of being a people of champagne talk and kool-aid action. They are observing all the religious rituals but they are not behaving differently in their lives outside the temple. They are participating in the rituals, following the rules, and yet outside of their observances they are cheating people in business, neglecting their care of the poor and looking away when they see injustice. Because of this, God has allowed them to go into captivity and be separated from their land and their homes. And the people are shocked by this. They can’t believe that they could do all the right things and still get in trouble. God goes so far to say that their prayers don’t get further than the ceiling because the disconnect between their words and their practices is so profound. The issue is, their exercising of spiritual practices was completely external, not at all part of a true spiritual practice. The external observances are supposed to be an outward expression of a inward transformation.
In Matthew 6, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teachings on fasting flow right out of a discussion on prayer and financial giving. They all three have something in common – secrecy. How many times have you heard “OMG – i’m doing this juice fast and I’m STARVING.” Fine, it’s not really for spiritual purposes. But how many times have we (myself included) said, “OMG – I’ve given up _______ for Lent and I’m DYING for it!” Kinda the same thing. I feel I can say this because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I can be a bit of a drama queen. Whenever we’re engaging in a spiritual practice with the end goal of true spiritual transformation, the results should be seen in our actions: the combination of faith and works. We are most like Jesus when we serve, but the energy, passion and desire for service should come from inside us, when we are truly on a path of pursuing God in our everyday lives.
I liken this to Tebowing. I am a big fan of football, but not a fan of Tim Tebow’s public displays of his faith. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and all the anecdotal evidence I’ve read says that he’s really a great guy in real life. His stock went way up to me when he declined an invitation to go on a date with Kim Kardashian. However, the whole Tebowing thing- not a fan. I have yet to see him do his move when the Broncos lose. If he were to do that after he got sacked or after they missed a field goal, I’d be all for it. But it’s bad theology to only be open about praising God when things go well, and it’s not very Sermon on the Mount to make such public displays of your personal practices.
Another thing I notice about this passage is the way Jesus opens the conversation – “when you fast.” There’s an assumption that there will be fasting. However, it’s not a command. Because of the context of this passage, I think Jesus is telling us that prayer, fasting and generosity are all part of a healthy spiritual practice.
I can only think of one time when I’ve fasted based on a spiritual practice and it was only half a day. This was many years ago when I worked at my grad school’s library. I very distinctly heard God tell me not to pack a lunch that day because food would be provided for me. Lest you think I belong on a 24-hour Christian Network, I hasten to add that this isn’t something that happens often. But I have also learned that when God goes to the trouble to say something so directly, it’s best not to question and just go with it. I didn’t say anything, didn’t pack any food, just went to work. I started to get hungry, just kept going, drank water, etc. Around 1ish I begin to think this was crazy, and that I was imagining it and I was just going to grab something before the cafe closed, when one of the students came to my desk and said, here’s the rest of my lunch – some fruit and yogurt. I’m not hungry anymore so you can have it. I never told her what was going on, before or after she gave me her food, but I always go back to that experience to remind myself that God has always taken care of me, even in the most mundane of circumstances.
Another popular trend in the food industry, and something we all love is “comfort food”. What is your go-to comfort food? I like to make things my mom made. Last week I did a chicken/broccoli/curry thing she used to do and the week before it was liver & onions with mashed potatoes. I love liver & onions. Food just makes us feel better and I think that’s normal. However, any time anything that’s not God, becomes your consistent go-to comforter,it can get in the way of a genuine connection to God. Jesus tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness and all these things will be added. Things that we use to comfort us are not always food. Are there things in which you find security that you use to center yourself?
Fasting doesn’t have to be from food. Fasting is about removing obstacles that keep us from connecting to God and acknowledging our dependence on God’s protection and provision. We started our Lenten discussion with Moses’ removal of his shoes as something that aren’t bad in an of themselves but were, at that moment, blocking his full experience of God. I’d like to challenge you to spend some time this week thinking about things that might come between you and your full experience of God and maybe think about a fast from them. See what the difference is in your relationship to your families, co-workers and friends. Open yourself to the possibilities of how much bigger God can be in your everyday lives and see what a difference it can make.